GET OVER HERE! A reboot of 1995’s Mortal Kombat, arguably the greatest video game movie ever made, starts production in Australia later this year.
With plot details unknown at this point it remains to be seen whether this movie follows the same story beats as the original Mortal Kombat or draws on new elements from the 25 years of lore this long-running game series had built up. As the recent success of Detective Pikachu has shown, coming at the story from a more indirect perspective than that of the main games series can often reap rewards. So, what path will Mortal Kombat take? Here are 5 possible options.
Option 1: A Straight-Up Remake
1995’s Mortal Kombat followed the narrative of the first Mortal Kombat game, with some elements of Mortal Kombat II, such as Emperor Shao Kahn’s cameo at the end, added in. Retelling this would probably be the easiest and most likely path for the film makers to take, but also a rather lazy one. One of the first movie’s biggest gripes among game fans was the way in which fan favorite characters Sub-Zero and Scorpion were reduced to being “jobbers” for the primary antagonist Shang Tsung. Their bitter, murderous rivalry (an integral plot point in the games) was only referenced in a single, throwaway line of dialogue from Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa’s Tsung.
Mortal Kombat has close to 100 characters and 11 mainline games (plus numerous spin-offs) to draw inspiration from. The film makers also need to consider that those who were fans of the original games are now in their 30s and 40s. It may be necessary to somehow work in characters from the more recent games, to get younger fans on board with the movie. It won’t be an easy balancing act, but with James Wan overseeing the project, it can be done.
Option 2: Enter Shinnok
Perhaps Mortal Kombat could take a leaf out of Jurassic World’s book and make the new movie a relaunch rather than a reboot; taking the story in a new direction, but still giving passing reference to the events of previous movies. For many fans, a satisfying way to achieve this, would be to bring in the fallen Elder God, Shinnok. Used largely as a background character in Mortal Kombat’s atrocious sequel, 1997’s Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, Shinnok is a long-running antagonist in the series. His role as the final boss in both Mortal Kombat 4 and 2015’s Mortal Kombat X gives him recognition among both older and newer fans of the series.
Shinnok was imprisoned at the end of Annihilation, with Shao Kahn killed and Earth seemingly saved. However, as an Elder God, Shinnok is a character who can’t really be killed. He can also take on any form he wishes, so recasting him wouldn’t be a problem either. His role as de facto god of death and his resurrection abilities could also open the door for the producers to bring back previous villains Shang Tsung and Shao Kahn. Let’s hope though, that they quietly drop Annihilation’s universe-breaking revelation that Shinnok, Shao Kahn and primary mentor to the good guys, Raiden, are all blood relatives.
Option 3: Deadly Alliance
In the late 90s, following Annihilation’s bombing at the box office, and the lukewarm reception of Mortal Kombat 4 among fans, the Mortal Kombat franchise was in danger of disappearing altogether. However 2002’s Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance on the Playstation 2, changed that. Taking the series into proper 3D fighting mechanics for the first time, it also gave us one of the most memorable story lines. Shang Tsung, final boss of the first game, and main villain of the original movie, teamed up with Quan Chi, a sorcerer from the Netherrealm, with more than a passing resemblance to Hellraiser’s Pinhead (minus the pins).
The first action this duo took was to murder the main hero of the series Liu Kang. If the makers of the new movie really want to “subvert expectations” then you can’t get much more subversive than the death of your main protagonist in the first 5 minutes! The interplay between these two very different but equally evil and duplicitous characters would be fascinating to watch on the big screen. It would be quite an ambitious undertaking to have a martial arts movie with main villains whose primary means of action are subterfuge and treachery rather than direct brute force.
With his recent turn as the voice and face model of Shang Tsung in Mortal Kombat 11, and his memorable performance in Amazon Prime’s The Man in the High Castle, perhaps Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa could be tempted to return to the role of the sinister sorcerer once more? As for Quan Chi, well whoever plays him will need to be comfortable with shaving their head and getting it painted white!
Option 4: A Prequel
Ever since The Phantom Menace came out 20 years ago, the word “prequel” has come to be something of a divisive term in fandom. On one hand, there are those of us who want to dig deeper into the in-universe lore of our favorite characters and their origins and welcome anything that expands that fictional world. On the other hand, there are those of us who want the narrative to keep moving forward, and get frustrated when shows like Star Trek Discovery retread and in some cases try to reinvent ground we have already been over.
A prequel could work for Mortal Kombat though, for a few reasons:
Firstly, the game features characters who are thousands, and in some cases millions of years old, giving plenty of backstory to explore. Also, we are talking about a franchise that so far has only had two movies and a short- lived TV series. The less said about the 2011 web series, the better. Indeed the concept of a prequel was actually explored in the games before, and most fans seemed to enjoy it.
2004’s Mortal Kombat: Deception introduced a new hero, Shujinko, as a replacement for the deceased Liu Kang. In addition to the game’s usual 1-on-1 fighting mode, an additional side game called Konquest told Shujinko’s back story. Starting as a young impetuous warrior and ending the game as wizened old master, Shujinko, guided by a spirit known as Damashi, set out on a quest to explore all the “realms” (different planets on different planes of reality in the Mortal Kombat universe)
and recover rare artifacts.
Beginning on Earth, around 50 years before the events of the first Mortal Kombat game, Shujinko’s quest takes him to Outworld, home of the series’ recurring villains Shang Tsung and Shao Kahn, to the Netherrealm, MK’s equivalent of Hell, ruled by the tyrant Shinnok, the Choasrealm, a place so messed up that even the laws of physics don’t work there anymore, and Seido, the Orderrealm, which although clean and peaceful, is basically a fascist police state.
And of the course the big twist in the tale comes at the end, when SPOILER ALERT: Much to his dismay, Shujinko learns he was inadvertently working for the bad guys all along. The key is in the names. Shujinko （主人公）means “hero” in Japanese. Damashi (だまし) means to fool or deceive. I must admit, I had a little chuckle to myself when, as a student of Japanese some 10 years after Mortal Kombat: Deception was released, I finally got the joke.
The depiction of these fantastical realms is, as one may expect, somewhat one-dimensional in the game, and would need to be fleshed-out considerably to make sense from a narrative point of view in a movie. The Shujinko Konquest story line is a relatively obscure one outside of hardcore fans of Mortal Kombat, but as a gateway to the various realms and factions involved in the wider story, it would be a pretty good introduction.
Option 5: Fire & Ice
If Mortal Kombat ever needed any mascots then the two most likely candidates would have to be Scorpion and Sub-Zero. Originally conceived as two palette-swapped variations on the same character template, these two assassins have grown into unique and endearing characters in their own right, with their long running feud a constant feature of the games’ evolving plots, until the two finally made peace and agreed to work together in 2015’s Mortal Kombat X.
Perhaps this would be the best way for a new Mortal Kombat to stand apart from previous TV and film incarnations, by setting aside most of the games burgeoning roster and focusing instead on just a few of the more popular characters. A movie fronted by Scorpion and Sub-Zero would be the ultimate in fan service and a great way to streamline the games’ sometimes confusing plot into a more cohesive, movie-friendly narrative.
And few in the Mortal Kombat universe have been through more together than these two characters. As loyal assassins for rival clans, Scorpion represented Japan’s Shirai Ryu, whilst Sub-Zero was a loyal servant of China’s Lin Kuei, despite actually being of mixed American/Chinese heritage. At their first encounter, about one year before the events of the first game, Sub-Zero murdered Scorpion.
For Scorpion’s enemies though, it wasn’t enough simply to kill him, his family and indeed his entire clan were also massacred. Burning with rage, Scorpion’s soul couldn’t ascend to the afterlife, instead he was reborn as a specter, an undead being with fire-based, supernatural powers. Imagine Spawn, but a lot angrier and more prone to burning people alive.
At the first Mortal Kombat tournament, Scorpion got his revenge when he killed Sub-Zero. However, his raging spirit still wouldn’t die, as he was to learn years later that the Chinese Ninja Warrior had not in fact been his family’s killer. That dubious honor belonged to Quan Chi, the sorcerer. The dead and disgraced Sub-Zero joined his former foe in hell, being reborn as the wraith Noob Saibot (taken from the surnames of Mortal Kombat co-creators Ed Boon and John Tobias).
The mantle of Sub-Zero was taken up by the original’s younger brother and in 2015 after almost a quarter century of rivalry, he set aside his differences with a now fully-restored Scorpion to team up and take on a greater threat. A Sub-Zero and Scorpion movie would most likely revolve around Scorpion’s interactions with the two Sub-Zero brothers, and the sorcerer Quan Chi.
It could of course bring in other characters in small roles, perhaps to gauge interest for giving them their own movies further down the line. Whilst this approach would probably meet with almost universal approval among fans of the game, it would probably pose a problem in terms of accessibility for more casual viewers. This means it is, unfortunately, probably the least likely of the possible plot lines I have outlined today.
Whichever way they go with the new Mortal Kombat movie, I hope they just keep it simple. Don’t worry too much about world building for now, just give us a good, solid, enjoyable movie that is faithful to the source material and we can go from there. At the end of the day, video game movies don’t exactly have a good track record, but back in 1995, Mortal Kombat showed that it could be done. It was possible to make an enjoyable video game adaptation that remained true to its origins. As kombat begins again, check back here regularly for more news as it develops.
Scotsman living in Japan. Teacher. Blogger.